When entertainer Bette Midler last performed here nine years ago, she noticed what the rest of us knew. “I haven’t been here since 1978,” she told an adoring audience. “I love what you’ve done to the waterfront.”
She should come back in a year or two.
A number of questions have yet to be answered, but there is a beautiful bottom line to word that Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor will soon become a state park, and it is this: Gallagher Beach and the Small Boat Harbor will soon become a state park.
After decades under the control of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which was poorly equipped for – and not much interested in – waterfront development, the NFTA will transfer the two parcels at the southern end of the outer harbor to the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Some 120 to 160 acres of northern outer harbor property will then be given to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. for cleanup and likely development into some mix of private and public uses.
This stands to be a huge win for Buffalo, whose waterfront has been squandered for decades, either used as a location for manufacturing that contaminated the ground, or left as vacant, apparently undevelopable, land. And it builds on other waterfront projects that have already leveraged further development and will surely produce more.
Two points about the deal are especially critical. First is that the NFTA is turning over the waterfront land. The authority acquired the property in a previous incarnation as the Niagara Frontier Port Authority, back when Buffalo was a major Great Lakes port.
Today, though, its mission is public transportation. Asking it to manage waterfront development is like asking the Sabres to score more touchdowns. It doesn’t compute. The NFTA did a terrible job on the waterfront. One result is that the Small Boat Harbor needs about $30 million in repairs, including a new breakwater, new docks and dredging. That now becomes the state’s responsibility.
Secondly, this plan avoids the potentially disastrous outcome of city control over the property or some mutant arrangement that would unnecessarily divide control of the land. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. exists for the purpose that its name suggests, while the state parks department has the resources and skills to create and manage an attractive waterfront park.
Credit for this happy outcome goes to all concerned. That includes Mayor Byron W. Brown, who backed off his desire for the city to play a prominent role in this development and showed, once again, that he knows when to step back and allow good things to happen.
Mainly, though, the powers behind this plan are Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has paid more attention to Buffalo than any governor in memory, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has been championing waterfront development since long before he was elected to Congress.
State control is no guarantee of ideal stewardship, of course. It took some prodding for the state to undertake a badly needed face-lift at Niagara Falls State Park, for example. And while Cuomo has become one of Buffalo’s biggest boosters, he won’t be governor forever.
That suggests two important local needs. One is to challenge Cuomo to produce a park that will make him and Buffalo proud for decades to come. The other is for local leaders to ensure that maintenance and development don’t languish under future governors, who might have other priorities.
Buffalo’s waterfront is on a roll. Canalside is still under construction and is already successful. Its popularity has helped leverage private-sector development, including huge projects at the former Donovan State Office Building and across the street in the Webster Block.
The same is all but certain to happen with the new project, which will connect to Canalside via Ohio Street, about to be converted into a tree-lined parkway that will also allow for hiking, biking and pedestrian access.
And, like the fabulous Miss M., it sounds divine.